Paul’s Vision in 2 Corinthians Chapters 11–13.
1. Remarks about boasting, foolishness and foolish discussions. By Paul’s own admission, he says that he was speaking foolishly in 2 Cor 11:1, 11:21, 11:23, and 12:11, etc.
This contradicts what Paul himself warned others about concerning foolishness in Eph 5:4, 2 Timothy 2:23 and other passages. Jesus warned about being foolish in several places in the N.T. Paul seems to excuse himself in 11:17 when he admits he is speaking foolishly, prior to rehearsing his background and experiences, and goes so far as to have “confidence of boasting”, apparently meaning he had sufficient reason(s) to boast? In 11:19, he issues a minor slap to the Corinthians, saying that they put up with fools gladly, and they should accept him as a fool, to paraphrase 11:16, that he may boast a little. In 12:6, he is acting like he is aware that his remarks could be interpreted as a reproach, and he seems to be arguing with himself over his desire to boast. But he eventually allows his boasting to prevail, leading to verse 7, where it appears he expects the reader to understand it was all excusable due to the “abundance of revelations”. In 12:11 he says, “I have become a fool in boasting,” (past tense), confirming that his desire to boast did prevail.
- In summary, a lot of self-admitted foolish discussion and conflicting statements about glorying and boasting clearly surrounds these passages, and the overall narrative of his vision.
- As a side note, in 2 Cor 11:1 KJV, Paul qualifies his remarks (to follow), as: “Would to God ye could bear with me a little in my folly”. It is interesting to note that the word folly (Heb—n’belah), when used in the OT in 5 different places, (Gen 34:7, De 22:21, Jos 7:15, Jg 19:23, 20:6), is associated with lewdness or sexual immorality.
2. Someone receiving a vision or revelation from the Lord, then being smitten with a “thorn” to keep them humble is unprecedented in scripture. Reading the account of the calling of Moses in Exodus chapter 3-4, the calling of Isaiah in Isaiah chapter 6, and calling of Jeremiah in Jeremiah chapter 1, the one common theme is the humility and brokenness that is associated with the presence of the Lord. Studying Paul’s account, it is a strange doctrine, and unfamiliar to other Bible examples, when he is smitten with an infirmity to keep him from being “exalted above measure.”
3. In the divine visitation described in Gen 32:24-32 where Jacob struggles with the angel until the breaking of the day, there are several key areas that are definitely worth mentioning for comparison purposes:
- There was an immediate need surrounding this encounter. Jacob was in trouble. His brother was headed his way with 400 armed men to settle an old score.
- Jacob struggled with the angel and prevailed. His old ways as a “trickster” and a “supplanter” were no more. His name was changed to: “Israel, for as a prince thou hast power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.”
- There was no mystery or lack of clarity as to what was spoken or what took place.
- Jacob was determined to not let the angel go until he blessed him. It is like the divine messenger was sent to test Jacob’s resolve and will to prevail. He touched the hollow of Jacob’s thigh, and made it out of joint, when he saw that Jacob was determined to prevail, and have true power with God (32:28), and true victory. What blessings and good spirit surrounds every aspect of this encounter!!
- The end result and fruits of righteousness were as follows:
- Jacob was eternally blessed, and from him, God raised up an entire nation that was to become a blessing to the world.
- In Gen 33:3-4, “(Jacob) bowed himself to the ground seven times, until he came near his brother.” “And Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him, and they wept.” What an example of humility and kindness!!
4. Who was the man that Paul “knew” when he was caught up into paradise? The details are not available, regarding the man’s name and exactly where this event happened. However, Paul says in 12:2 that he “knew a man in Christ above 14 years ago.” In verse 3 he continues: “And I knew such a man, whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell…,” and he heard (from this man?) “unspeakable words that are not lawful for a man to utter.” (Some translations use “know” and not “knew”, implying a present tense). In 12:5 (NIV) Paul says, “I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except my weaknesses.” He repeats twice in verses 2 and 3: “whether in the body or out of the body, I cannot tell.” From this narrative, one can only deduce the following: 1) Paul was most likely referring to a spiritual being, and not human flesh. 2) Paul had an affinity towards this man to “boast about a man like that.”
5. What was said that was not lawful for a man to utter? This is a key question. For “lawful” in the KJV, Paul uses the Greek work Exesti pertaining to being lawful, or as being permissible. This word is used 29 times in the N.T., mostly pertaining to God’s Law. Jesus used this (translated) word in several instances, when he defended that doing good on the Sabbath was Lawful, or in obedience to God’s word. We cannot say for sure whether Paul meant that repeating what he heard was not lawful, or the actual substance of what was said or done was not lawful. But saying that it was “not lawful for a man to utter” in 12: 4, precludes the possibility that what was said was so wonderful, in essence, that words could not express. We are left with really only three conclusions: 1) What Paul heard was meant for his hearing only, and was not to be publicly repeated. 2) What was said referred to something that would have been too impolite to express the details in public. That could qualify for not being lawful to utter. 3) The most likely conclusion, since Paul explicitly said the man he knew uttered the unlawful words, was that some relationship existed between them, and the sin or unsanctified act that could not be discussed involved both Paul and this man.
6. Timeline of “14 years ago” 2 Corinthians was written in 57 AD, from the records we have. The council in Jerusalem is dated at 50 AD. 14 years prior or 43 AD would have been during the reign of Claudius, and prior to any of Paul’s letters or missionary journeys. History gives the time of Paul’s conversion at approx. 32-37 AD. This vision would have been during the reign of Herod Agrippa I and roughly the time of Paul’s second visit to Jerusalem.
7.Were there any comments from Paul’s contemporaries or other Apostles on this experience? We can only speculate who Peter was referring to in 2 Peter, chapter 2, and Jude was referring to in his writings, but it would behoove us to read this carefully, and especially Jude 1:7-8.
8.References to sins of Sodom and Gomorrah. Per Jude 1:7, the verse is clear that the noted sins of Sodom and Gomorrah were fornication and “going after strange flesh.” (This is obviously referring back to Gen 19:5). To say this carefully, when Paul said he “knew” a man in Christ, he had to have been aware that “know” or “knew” could be interpreted from the OT as casual or intimate. From his description in 12:4-5, and with the pride, exaltation and foolishness surrounding the encounter, including the contact with the spiritual being, what was said or done was more than just casual. This was not a sanctified encounter. The implications are extremely serious, and have a lot of end-time significance. This also may explain the debauchery in the Corinthian church, and especially what was mentioned in 12:31.
9. Miscellaneous Observations.
- Paul’s own conclusion indicates that his glorying is a weakness that necessitated the “thorn in the flesh”, lest he would be exalted above measure. His final conclusion, however, was in 12: 9: “My grace is sufficient for thee, for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” “ Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” Paul says he is quoting our Lord, but we need to be careful here when our Lord Jesus is quoted in a context of foolishness and human boasting that “grace” is not understood to be an acceptance of the sin of pride.
- The scriptural precedent also is that the Lord’s strength is manifested only in holy and clean vessels, and true strength with Jesus Christ starts with moral purity and obedience to His word, and specifically the Law of Love. (See John 14:12-15, 15:7, and 1 John 3:22-23). So to accurately quote the Lord Jesus that we know, it should be: “My strength is made perfect in True Love and True Holiness.” In this light, glorying in one’s infirmities to have the true power of Christ is also strange doctrine, without any overall scriptural basis.
- Paul heard unlawful words uttered in the 3rd heaven (paradise) or the immediate presence of God? Think about what is being said here.
- On an important note, and depending upon the commentator, Bible students are aware of Paul’s lax viewpoint on the Law and our responsibility to it as N.T. believers. With that, the counter point is that it is nearly impossible to determine what is lawful or not by Paul’s standards? In 1 Cor 6:12, Paul says, “all things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient.” So in this case, one could make a point that Paul’s opinion is probably irrelevant as to whether or not a sin was involved, and that would have to defer to divine judgment, regardless of Paul’s discourse.
- The scriptural precedent for visions and revelations is generally a revealing of God’s truth that was previously not known. What was the truth that was unveiled in this case? The end result from Paul’s perspective seems to be wrapped up in 12:10 – 12:12, where he discusses his (renewed) power with the Lord. It is ironic that Paul, in 2 Cor 13:2, threatens those who have sinned: “I will not spare”, evidently believing that this vision supported his authority to deal with a long list of sins in the church. (See 12:20). One must ask how a vision surrounded by foolishness, boasting, and questionable substance is in a context to support his authority to deal with sin in the church?
- This entire discourse in 2Corinthians 11-12 is nearly filled with pride, arrogance and foolishness.
- Would to God ye could bear with me a little in my folly. (11:1)
- For I suppose I was not a whit behind the very chiefest apostles. (11:5)
- I say again, let no man think of me as a fool; if otherwise, yet as a fool receive me, that I may boast myself a little. (11:16)
- That which I speak, I speak it not after the Lord, but as it were foolishly, in this confidence of boasting. (11:17)
- Seeing that many glory after the flesh, I will glory also. (11:18)
- Howbeit whereinsoever any is bold, (I speak foolishly,) I am bold also. (11:21)
- 11:22 thru 11:28 could all be listed under the category of exalting one’s self.
10. Final Concluding Remarks. It is a great tragedy that Paul’s remarks in these passages are taken seriously as Christian doctrine when they are filled with sinful pride, foolishness, and self-deceit. God hates pride and arrogance. Psalms 119: 21 says “Thou has rebuked the proud, which are cursed, which do err from thy commandments.” Psalms 113:4 says “The LORD is high above all nations, and his glory above the heavens.” The scriptures are full of praise and glory to the LORD. It also warns that SHAME shall be the promotion of fools, and he that glorieth, let him glory in the LORD. In Matthew 23:12, Jesus said that whoever shall exalt himself shall be abased, and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.
And it is tragic also to say that in the case of Paul’s vision, a very serious and deceiving sin was committed regardless of Paul’s comments otherwise.
There is a lot of commentary about whether Satan administered the “thorn in the flesh”, or possibly it was a direct result of Paul’s actions? In summary though, it is a strange doctrine, as our Lord has provided a proven and priceless plan for the deliverance from our sins, and the consequences have already been paid. There is no scriptural basis to indicate that Satan or his messengers are charged with any involvement in our sanctification, nor does he have any duty to keep us humble or prevent us from being excessively prideful. Incidentally, Satan’s very nature is filled with pride, reading the account of the fall of Lucifer in Isaiah 14.
And the end result in this case was a reminder of the consequences of pride, arrogance, a lack of sincere repentance, and affinities (12:5a) with unclean spirits and demonic beings in the heavenly realms, that God so clearly has warned against.
It should be noted also that God’s strength has been manifested throughout history through individuals with infirmities and hardships. But Paul’s conclusion in 12:10 listing his “thorn in the flesh” along with other persecutions and hardships in the context of spiritual strength, is very deceiving and questionable at best, when one considers that his own actions and sins were obviously the cause of this “thorn.”
May the Lord help us and strengthen us to walk in the truth, in True Love and True Holiness.
7/16/15, updated 7/3/2016
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